The side effects that saved us.
I am not one to care for love ballads or odd time signatures, but I would not have missed this for anything.
Trouble Will Find Me
21 May 2013
I pressed the button “Play” with much trepidation; music began filling my laptop’s built-in speakers. Here I was, waiting to be carried away in a swarm of bees, hoping to gracefully disappear into the basement of my brain.
Fifty five minutes later, absolutely nothing happened.
I sat up slowly, baffled by the lack of impact after my first full listen of the new album. I felt thoroughly dejected. I remembered when the unattractive cover art and uninspiring song titles were first unveiled a full two months before, all I had were goosebumps… paired with the distant chirping sounds of crickets.
Had it all really come down to this? Did the album cover not possess that smart, smug look – one capable of proclaiming itself as album of the year? Would the tunes within suffer from a fate worse than this? Was I witnessing the beginning of the end? It was hard to tell, and I started to worry incessantly, like how a ferocious tiger mother would annoyingly fuss over her overachiever of a child.
So I decided to utilise my earphones instead, and promptly accorded the album another spin. This time, I felt a hint of a smile coming upon me – and it has not let up since then. A month later, I read again those unabashed thoughts that was written during that crucial second listen made of pure unadulterated bliss, and I knew this much is true:
The National will never, ever, let me down.
The band’s latest outing, Trouble Will Find Me, gets off rather unconventionally to a slow start – it opens to the delicate strumming of acoustic guitars in “I Should Live in Salt”, in which frontman Matt Berninger practically slurs and sings words seemingly tinged with a million misgivings in this personal ode written of his brother, Tom (also director of the documentary Mistaken for Strangers, which was conveniently released in the lead-up to the new album).
This is then followed by a few relatively restrained tunes, among which include the first promotional single “Demons”, a rather haunting melody whose only purpose is to reinforce the brand of darkness and despair that the band is usually associated with (“When I walk into a room / I do not light it up / fuck”); and “Fireproof”, a slow burn of a song that unfortunately seems to serve more as filler than killer. Sandwiched in between, however, is the curiously-titled “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, a foot-tapping pop tune that sees the band’s passable efforts at attempting vocal stacking and wry humour.
So at first glance, the tracklisting to Trouble Will Find Me did not feel as cohesive as in their previous albums, coming across as being patchy at times. Thankfully, the momentum well and truly picks up midway through. “Sea of Love”, contrary to its romantic connotations, is actually a catchy rock anthem that hearkens back to the fondly remembered The National sounds of the old, hinting at the fevered energy of those critically-acclaimed Alligator (2005) times and reminding us that the band can indeed still be a force to be reckoned with – and perhaps with some surprises up their sleeves, what with the ingenious addition of harmonicas by guitarist Aaron Dessner. Another highlight is the immediate and raw “Graceless” (codename: “Prime”), which never fails to pack a visceral punch in the gut with the line “There’s a science to walking through windows without you” when complemented with Bryan Devendorf’s intense drumming abilities.
However, the most memorable part is undoubtedly the trifecta of successes that come near the end of the album. Having “I Need My Girl” subtly merging with “Humiliation” (codename: “Sullivan”) and then gently leading into “Pink Rabbits” is simply – for a lack of a better word – sublime.
“I Need My Girl” sees a marked improvement from its debut at the Beacon Theatre show in late 2011, the new needly guitars and velvety vocals turning the song into an incredibly poignant and sincere ballad; whereas it has been interesting to witness the smooth, rising tension in “Humiliation” blooming into a shimmery wonder of epic proportions as compared to its ATP counterpart.
But it is perhaps the uplifting “Pink Rabbits” that has the most potential in adding to The National’s history as an instant band classic, in the vein of notable regulars such as “About Today” or “Fake Empire” – here, Berninger’s signature tender and warm baritone probably hit a higher register than he has ever been given credit for, but it is especially the lyrics (“So surprised you want to dance with me now / I was just getting used to living life without you around”) that come across as the most varied in his career and will tear you to pieces with its aching melancholia every single time.
So on hindsight, perhaps it is the stark reality and vivid imagery accompanying Berninger’s heartfelt confessions in Trouble Will Find Me that easily trumps that of its predecessor’s, the excellent High Violet (2010), in so many ways. No longer content with just defending his family with an orange umbrella (“Afraid of Everyone”), he ponders arriving in heaven alive, presumably to continue even in the afterlife his roles as a responsible father and dedicated husband (“Heavenfaced”).
Words such as those might just ring hollow in the hands of others, but not when they pour forth like divine truth from the enigmatic Berninger, master of rhyme and reason. We can but only imagine how immensely lucky his wife and daughter are. And somehow, we feel assured and all the more richer in life and spirit, too. Who would have thought that trouble could actually sound as good as this?